“I love you all!”
As the credits come down on a teary eyed Michael Fassbender, bellowing a heartfelt chorus for his fellow band-members, it’s impossible not to feel at least a little touched. Frank is a film that is undeniably charming, even if it is trying a little too hard to be so. Like a highly produced studio album trying to sound like a down-to-earth garage band, the story of Frank and his ohh-so eccentric band “Soronprfbs” is dripping with that rich, indy flavor, but it feels a tad too deliberate and wastes too much time delighting in itself. The good news is that while it might sound like Frank is playing a familiar tune, and one that is perhaps a little easy, the song playing is so damn good that you can’t help but dance along.
Frank gives us a glimpse into the life of its titular character (played by Michael Fassbender) through the eyes of wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). When Jon happens upon the Soronprfbs band members staring into the ocean as their keyboardist shouts and flails madly in the shallows, he is given an opportunity to fill in on keys at that night’s gig. While Jon only makes it seconds into the performance before it erupts with the band members screaming at each other and abandoning the stage, Frank believes he sees something in Jon and thus he is whisked away with them to live on the Irish countryside as they record their new album.
At first the film gives off a Richard Curtis vibe, with Jon playing the part of the hapless-though-charming bachelor. He’s deceptively painted as the underappreciated new kid whom nobody but Frank is willing to give a chance. The other members of the band, especially their erratic theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), immediately resent Jon and see his ignorance as a threat to their artistic ecosystem. Most films would likely see Jon finding a way to prove himself, win the respect of the band and eventually lead them to glory, but it’s here Frank sets itself apart and what’s truly special about this story starts to surface. Instead, it becomes increasingly obvious that Jon is utterly without talent, and is trying to morph the band from an obscure and strange underground act to a vehicle for his own dreams of celebrity.
While most of the cast is quite intentionally unlikable, Frank himself hasn’t a spiteful bone in his body. He can’t help but be encouraging of Jon and excited by his claims that they could one day be loved. It’s here I should probably delve into to the film’s big gimmick and defining characteristic. Frank, you see, wears a specially designed, giant, paper-mache head. He exercises in it. He showers in it. He eats, drinks and sleeps in it. At first glance it’s an interesting statement from a quietly deep and sensitive artist, and it does make for some nice gags here and there (Frank declaring his facial expressions in his monotone voice so people can tell what he’s feeling stands out), but as the film rolls on we see it’s a defense mechanism for a man that’s terrified and cripplingly insecure.
Though it takes a while before we get to know him, Frank is an easy creation to fall in love with. Awkwardly charming and capable of only seeing the good in others, it’s devastating to watch his vulnerabilities take hold as he slips further into himself. Fassbender is easily one of the finest actors around, and Frank is yet another showcase of his talent and range. With only body language and a mumbled voice, he steals every scene he is in. Fassbender takes what should be one of the year’s more challenging roles and makes it look easy, despite it being a far cry from any of his other works.
Gleeson does an excellent job with Jon, channeling is aw-shucks performance from About Time, but lacing it with a toxic ignorance that can have you unsure whether you hate the guy or are rooting for him. Probably both. But while the unlikability of the non-Fassbender Soronprfbs is deliberate, it can sometimes be a chore to put up with them. Clara is especially prickly, and is sometimes a bridge too far with all her eccentricities and rage. It’s certainly not a fault of Gyllenhaal, who brings a rich complexity to a challenging role, but even when she is the voice of reason we are a little too used to seeing her as the bully to sympathise.
The film’s biggest flaw is easily its swollen middle, which spends far too long making us dislike the characters we are on this journey with. Given the already short run-time, it’s hard to suggest cutting the film down, but it definitely does drag. The bigger problem is possibly the rarity of warm moments between the characters during this time, as it feels most of their interactions are negative and just an excuse to show off their varied quirks. More the shame, is that the few we do get are perhaps the least relevant given the film’s concluding message.
All that aside, the journey Frank ultimately leads us on is something beautiful. As you walk out of the cinema, the lumbering second act will drift from your memory as the profound message and heartwarming finale wash all the film’s missteps from mind. Though a character study first and foremost, Frank does have a lot to say about common romantic conceptions of music and artistry being defined by tragedy. But in disassembling these conventions, it romanticizes its subjects in a new way that manages to humanize them while still celebrating their achievements and individuality.
Frank isn’t some instantly catchy pop-song. It’s a subtle melody that sinks in the more you think about it. The underlying melancholy of the cast infuses elegantly with the bouncy humour and the moving performance from Fassbender, to give us something that is at once sad and uplifting. Somber, yet full of life, Frank is one of the most quietly stirring movies of recent memory.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10